Monday, November 28, 2016

Peru 4 - The Amazon



Today's the day I'm wrapping up my Peru trip. Well, not the actual trip - I've been home for ages - just the drawn-out re-telling of it.

We left off in Cusco where half the group is flying to the Amazon basin, while the other half heads home.
We flew into a tiny airport in Puerto Maldonado, where porters took our luggage and spent a considerable amount of time cramming our luggage into and on top of a little bus. Then we boarded the bus for a short ride to the river. There we stood and watched as guys transferred our luggage from the bus down the steep riverbank to the back of a long skinny tippy boat. I felt like we should help. I’m always a bit uncomfortable when watching others do work I could easily do myself. In this case they were better equipped to carry big suitcases down steep slippery steps than I was, but often it’s just rolling suitcases into the hotel or airport. I actually prefer to take my suitcase myself; it’s got good wheels and is easy to maneuver and I like to know where it is. The problem is that the porters want the tips and I don’t want to take away their livelihood. Sometimes, no matter what amount we give them, they look hurt and ask for more. The tour guides tell us what an appropriate tip is, and warn us about not falling for their guilt tricks, but it still doesn’t feel good to walk away feeling like you may have cheated them.


It’s a 45-minute boat ride to the lodge on the Madre de Dios River. We are not on the  actual Amazon River; we are in the Amazon Basin. This river eventually runs into the Amazon. It’s brown and dirty-looking, but it’s actually silt. There are kids swimming in the river and (illegal) machines set up to siphon gold from the bottom of the river. Occasionally we see a house, lodge or another boat on the river, but it’s pretty remote. I was starting to get worried about where exactly we were heading, when we finally reached our destination.

The worry was unnecessary. This place (Amazonica Reserva Inkaterra) was amazing – it felt like I was on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. It was rustic, yet luxurious. We slept in screened cabanas that let in light and air and the sounds of the jungle. Since it was an eco-friendly resort, the electricity was shut off for several hours a day. We ate our meals in the main lodge, sitting on tree stump chairs (the level of comfort did not match the cool look), eating delicious food by candlelight.

This drink was called "The Treehouse" and came complete with burning embers (?) on the side.
One of the many sitting areas inside the main lodge
 
My cabana

View from my bed

There was a folding privacy screen that was put up at night when they came to put the mosquito nets down at night. The cabana was lit with kerosene lamps and was so beautiful and cozy at night, with the sounds of the jungle all around,

There were different excursions to choose from throughout the day; my choices were a night boat ride, a hike in the rainforest to a lake where we canoed, a canopy walk, and a night walk in the jungle. We didn’t see as many animals as I thought we would. Even the birds, heard constantly and loudly, were elusive. We did spot some birds including parrots, monkeys, lizard, a family of giant otters, agouti (looks like a giant rat, but with longer legs) and a tarantula. Oh, and ants. The guide was pumped about all the leafcutter ants, but I can see ants at home. I was hoping for an anaconda.

I’m going to let the pictures speak their thousand words each. All I will say is that it was even more beautiful in real.


 

You could stay in this little treehouse over night for a pretty penny (I can't find the price online but the guide told us it was $$).  When it's rented out, they hoist up mattresses and other necessities. There's no running water - only a bucket for a toilet and a jug of water to wash with. The "dining room" is a short swinging-bridge walk away - also high up in the treetops; a chef comes to cook for you.

Sadly, the only snakes we saw were in a jar.
 




 
It poured one afternoon, as it should in the rainforest. Shortly after the rain stopped, we watched a beautiful outdoor wedding of two staff members; I guess they know how to time these things.

 
And then it was over. It really was an awesome trip. It got off to a rocky start with news of the death of a traveller’s family member, followed by the missing-the-plane incident. But thankfully after the first day, the worst was over. I don’t mind the smaller hiccups. It was a fantastic group and because of our shorter days, it was fun and relaxing to hang out with them. There are all kinds of different personalities but somehow it works! On all the trips so far, we've had awesome groups. There are always some people I love more than others, but everyone is there to have a good time and travelling with a group is way more fun than I thought it would be.

I think you should all see for yourself on The Chamber’s next trip to China in April. You won’t regret it! I am not personally going on that trip because I’m going to Croatia a couple of weeks later, but one of my co-workers will be hosting it. The Croatia trip is full at the moment, but we’ve got a waiting list in hopes that more spots open up (which is entirely possible). You can check out the Chamber trips here (India & Dubai, anyone?).
Okay, I'm done with the sales pitch and the trip updates - now it's back to regularly scheduled life.
 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

50


We've been celebrating for a couple of weeks already, but today's the day Dale turned 50. We planned little gifts and surprises for him in the ten days leading up to today, including a trip to visit Bean (the cat) in Steinbach, a massage appointment, and best of all, a surprise weekend visit from his sister Jean from Miami.

That surprise didn't quite pan out as planned; Jean and Dale's brother planned to surprise Dale at his office after his last client, but Dale had just left work when they got there. Plan B involved zipping back to our house and making a racket outside the door until Dale came out to check what was going on. It wasn't the strongest plan ever, but it did the trick.

On Saturday night, we had a little party with family and a few friends. Despite what the photo below looks like, we did invite some adults as well. My photography was not on point that night and I was pretty disappointed with most of my pictures. But it was a really fun night even though apparently all our family and friends are old too and everyone was gone by 11:30 pm.


Dale is very excited about his gift of a Jets jersey. Sadly the Jets have lost every game since he got it so he's starting to feel responsible. 

Dale and his sister. It was so great having her in town all weekend.

Tonight we rallied the troops for a late dinner at Prairie 360; we collected Spencer early from Drivers Ed, while Chloe rushed over to join us after work. It was a good dinner; not fantastic, but decent. They were out of a few dishes, so they brought us complimentary desserts which was very nice of them. They were delicious - the best part of the meal, in fact.


Dale's man-crush at work brought him an amazing cake from La Grotta so we went home and enjoyed the leftovers while Dale opened a couple more gifts (including a Bean mug).


And that's the end of that. I can't even believe he's 50. Age is not a big deal to either of us and I'm happy that we are healthy and all that, but seriously ... 50?! I can remember when my Grandma was 50! Well, maybe not. But we are plenty old enough to be grandparents ourselves. Oh well, it's all good and progressing as it should. I feel very lucky to have been with him for well over half of those years. Who knows what the next half-century will bring?!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Dale's birthday trip

 
The definition of a first world problem: when your trips pile up and you don’t have time to finish blogging about one before the next one starts. I wish I had that problem more.
As previously mentioned, Dale turns 50 this month. When trying to come up with ideas on how celebrate, I thought about what he loves most. And the answer I came up with was: his family (I hope), travelling, and maps (and RVs, but we've already been down that road - literally!). A long road trip was out of the question due to school/university and most of Dale’s vacation days have already been used up. Instead, I convinced the kids to take off a day of school (ended up being a half day due to prior commitments) this past Remembrance Day weekend so we could go on a mini-road trip. About three weeks before the trip, we told Dale what our gift was and gave him the trip money I’d saved up. I would have loved to make it more of a surprise, but he loves the planning part so much; looking at maps and figuring out routes, etc. His 40th birthday trip had a lot more of the “wow!” factor. I was feeling bad I wasn’t able to think of a way to make it splashier but then someone told me, “Forty is a bigger deal; it’s more exciting and we all have more energy.” So true. I’ve been struggling with ways to make this birthday special and it’s a relief to me to admit and accept that I’m just tired. It doesn’t mean I love Dale any less; it just means I don’t have the mental energy to go all out.
Anyway, Dale was pleased with his gift and had fun thinking of places to go in a short time span. He decided on Rapid City (Black Hills/Mount Rushmore). Even before the election, he was second-guessing his choice and thought about going to Banff or Edmonton instead. The appeal of going to the US plummeted even further after the election results. Like most Canadians (and a lot of Americans), we have lost interest in spending our time and money in a country who decides a racist, sexist, fear- and hate-monger is the best person to lead their country. But in the end, due to various reasons, we went anyway. To South Dakota, which is one of the states that loves Trump the most. You gotta love our strong moral convictions.
 

Just how we like our Donald ... silent and one-dimensional.
 
It wasn’t as bad as we thought. No one we talked to loved Trump but they had their reasons for voting Republican. And I guess it’s a free country. Dale was very distraught about the election results, so I tried my best to limit his exposure to politics while we were down there: only about 15 minutes of wi-fi a day and no political shows on TV. When we went for McFlurries one night, I even turned off the big TV in McDonalds because Fox News was on.
But the positives of the trip far outweighed the negative. We had an awesome time. Family trips with all five of us is not something we take for granted anymore. When you add another adult (Chloe) to the mix with her university and work schedule, things get complicated. So we all enjoyed it to the fullest and had some really great family time.
We made a point of stopping in our favourite town - Ellendale, North Dakota. You can click here for the same picture, taken nine years earlier.
 
 
We stayed in Aberdeen for night. We booked a room on air miles and they upgraded our room to a 2-bedroom suite, which was pretty sweet. Hunting season was in full swing and many businesses had tires at the front door with "Welcome Hunters" written on them. I thought it upped the class factor at our Marriott.
 
 
 
The next day, we stopped at the Badlands. We'd never been there before and it was definitely worth stopping for. We hiked around a bit, which was a lot of fun. Especially since the weather was ... 20 C! In mid-November!
 






 
We had lunch at Wall Drug (if you've never been there, you'll have no idea what I'm talking about) then headed to our hotel in Rapid City.

Wall Drug

We swam, shopped, and went for ice cream. The next day we headed to Mount Rushmore.


Then we headed to Deadwood to walk around and eat lunch. We went to a museum about the town's history as a gold rush town filled with crime and debauchery. True story: brothels were only outlawed in 1980. We also explored the cemetery where Wild Bill and Calamity Jane are buried. We would have liked to stay until 8:30 pm for the ghost tour, but we headed back to Rapid City for a bit more shopping, eating, and swimming.
 
 
We drove home on Sunday. We took back roads pretty much the whole way home. Let me tell you, there is a lot of nothing in South and North Dakota. Pretty much eleven hours of nothing-ness. The most exciting thing we saw were tumbleweeds. I’m not even joking. It was kind of freaky how they would suddenly come rolling across the road. Bathrooms were very hard to find. Not even a tree to hide behind. Our only break from the no-mans-land was a stop in Bismarck for lunch and Starbucks. Bismarck seemed like New York City to us after hours on the road without seeing a living thing.
 
On our way home, we stumbled upon this iconic spot in Rugby, ND.

It’s always sad to come home after a vacation, but it felt like we were away for much longer than just 3.5 days. If you’re looking for a little getaway, I’d highly recommend the Black Hills. Unless you’d rather stay in Canada, in which case I heartily applaud and envy your convictions.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Peru 3 - Machu Picchu and Cusco

 
After three days and nights in the Sacred Valley, we were all excited to move on. We took a morning train to Aguas Calientes, the town closest to Machu Picchu. The train ride was a couple of hours long and the scenery was beautiful. We rode along a river for most of the way, in a lush green valley. The coolest thing was seeing parts of the Inca Trail. This is a 26-mile trail that people can hike; it takes four days because of altitude issues and rough terrain. Sherpas/porters carry your bags and set up camp. My dream is to hike the Inca Trail someday. You’re all invited.
 
Fun fact: there is an Inca Trail marathon and the record is held by a porter who ran it in 3 hours and 23 minutes.

Once the train arrives in Aguas Calientes, we catch a bus to Machu Picchu. It’s a 20-minute ride with hairpin turns and steep drop-offs. Only buses travel this road. It’s too narrow to pass, so when we meet another bus, the drivers exchange some sort of signal and then one backs up until it reaches a wider spot. Backing up in a bus with a steep cliff right beside you takes some getting used to. The drivers seem like they know what they’re doing, which is a big relief. I’d hate to be on the training bus.
 
To review: we have taken a cab (from our house), a plane (from Winnipeg to Cusco), a bus (to the train station), a train, and finally another bus, all to reach our ultimate destination - Machu Picchu. And it was Worth It! No picture, no video, nothing, prepared me for the reality. It was so amazing and surreal to actually be standing on the grounds of the Inca citadel. It was built around 1450, abandoned about 100 years later as a result of the Spanish Conquest, and rediscovered in 1911 by an American explorer named Hiram Bingham. The local people knew of its existence all along and actually showed him where it was, but he gets the credit. I could go on, but I’ll move along. If you’re interested, you can read more here: http://www.history.com/topics/machu-picchu
 
First glimpse of the ruins

There she is, in all her glory. (On day 2, Dale and I climbed that tall mountain.)


So there we were in our breath-taking surroundings, climbing around and admiring the views from every angle. Part of the group climbed to the top of the ruins while the others stayed lower down. Both groups got a good guided tour of the history and meaning behind some of the structures.
Following are many pictures of Machu Picchu. It was hard to resist snapping a photo at every new level we climbed to and every different angle.







We had lunch at a restaurant up there, then took the bus back down to Aguas Calientes. From the bus stop, it was only two short blocks to our hotel, yet we managed to lose two people. That’s a long story but thankfully it ended well.  The hotel was so unique; part of it was outside and part of it was inside and it wasn’t always obvious which was which.  Here’s a link to a little video of the hotel, town and Machu Picchu. http://www.inkaterra.com/byinkaterra/el-mapi-hotel/the-experience/

I would have liked to spend more time exploring the town but by the time we had checked in, enjoyed happy hour and ate dinner, we went to bed in preparation for an early trip back up to Machu Picchu. Six of us had signed up for an extra hike to Huayna Picchu, the mountain behind Machu Picchu. They only allow 400 people per day to do this hike (200 in the morning, 200 in the afternoon), so you have to make reservations months in advance. So the next morning we were at the bus stop by 6 a.m., along with many others who also thought they’d beat the rush. We stood in line for at least 30 minutes but finally we were on our way up the mountain. The weather was perfect - sunny and warm and so, so beautiful.


Once we got up to Machu Picchu and headed to the spot where our hike began, the crowd had thinned out. Everyone has to sign in so they can keep track of who’s up there. There were six of us from our group that went together. The hike has the reputation for being super dangerous, however, according to this article, there are actually not that many people who have died there. The potential is certainly there; one misstep and it would all be over.

Side note: less than two months before we were there, a German tourist plunged to his death at Machu Picchu after losing his balance when taking selfies.

It was a steep climb. You hike 1000 feet in 1.2 miles. It’s actually not as hard as it looks or sounds. The stairs are uneven and rough, it’s super narrow, and you have to stop regularly to catch your breath because of the altitude, but slow and steady wins the race. Well, that’s untrue: our guide bragged that in his younger days, he ran up in 11 minutes. It took us about 1.5 hours. Occasionally, there was a cable to hang on to, but sometimes you had to climb up with your hands and feet, like a ladder.




The views were even more incredible than I expected. In the picture below, you can see the winding road that the bus takes up the mountain (on the left) with the ruins waaaaay below us. I wish I could adequately express the feeling of being up there. Not to be dramatic or anything, but it's kind of a sacred experience. I almost get choked up thinking of it. And I never get choked up. It's something I'll never forget and hope to do again some day.

The atmosphere at the top was pretty cool. Everyone was sort of euphoric and amazed and we were all like members of a cool mountain-climbing club. For once, there was no one selling souvenirs or water or snacks and there were only a couple of park rangers on the whole mountain. It really felt like we were discovering something new. Well, us and the 200 other people in our time slot.





I was gripping the rock pretty tightly - very freaky


At the top, we saw a sign pointing to a hike to some caves. One couple decided to just head down, but us remaining four decided to keep going. We are obviously not experienced hikers and climbers and were ill-informed; I thought we were going to the Moon Temple, which our guide had mentioned. Instead we descended steeply for half an hour straight on unmarked trails. The caves were cool, but then we had to go back up. That’s when one of the guys started struggling a bit. We had several anxious moments wondering what we would do if he collapsed. There was no cell service, our water supply was waning and there was no one else around; we saw literally one other couple the whole time. I was really hoping that sign-in system worked. But we all kept going and had a happy surprise when our trail eventually met up with the main trail going back down. We thought we had to climb all the way back up to the top and take a trail down from there, so we were very relieved.

Goodbye beautiful Machu Picchu
 
It was almost four hours by the time we got back to Machu Picchu. We were super tired and hungry and had just enough time for a quick meal before meeting everyone back at the hotel, then heading to the train station.
The town of Aguas Calientes
 
At the train station as we were about to board our train, one guy couldn’t find his train ticket. He had just had it minutes before, but now it was nowhere to be found. As he was emptying his pockets and digging through his backpack, Dale flagged down a train station employee and got a new ticket issued. It was more frantic than it sounds, but yet again, it all worked out.
And then we could relax and exhale on the 3.5 hour train ride to Cusco. There was some onboard entertainment as well as a fashion show and some shopping opportunities. That’s a smart move, taking advantage of a captive audience who can’t go anywhere. It worked.
 

crazy dancing guy
 
Again, our hotel was a very welcome sight after a long, tiring day. We didn’t even have the energy to go for dinner so Dale went to the store and bought some Pringles and chocolate bars, which we ate in bed. Life is good.
 
We spent one full day in Cusco, visiting a market, touring a couple of cathedrals, and seeing some more Inca sites.
 
San Pedro Market. (photo cred to one of our travelers)


This statue sits at the top of a hill overlooking Cusco and is aptly named "White Jesus."


Wilson, one of our beloved guides

On our last night of the tour (not counting the optional Amazon extension), we went to a dinner show at Don Antonio's. The food was excellent and very plentiful. Don't let the "chicken" label fool you; this dish was actually "Cuy," better known as guinea pig. Mmm.



After dinner, we were treated to a very entertaining show. One guy in our group got pulled up to dance and Dale and I were laughing at him and feeling such relief it wasn't us. At that instant, Dale also got pulled onto the stage. That's Dale's worst nightmare but he actually did very well and didn't embarrass himself too much.


And that was the end of the main portion of our trip. I accompanied about half the group for an extra few days in the Amazon while Dale and the rest of the group headed home. I took this from the bus as our group headed to the airport. I like to think they were all jealous.